Deborah Levy’s book Swimming Home, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is surprisingly short, and deceptively simple. The book swings you along, with the rhythm of the prose causing you occasionally to stop and think more about the events of the tale. It’s set during a week’s holiday in France, where a family – poet Joe, his frequently-absent wife Isabel, and his daughter Nina, along with friends Mitchell and Laura – are staying in a holiday home. Things are already a little uncomfortable, one senses, when Kitty Finch arrives, and the tension and drama brought about by her arrival are brilliantly depicted. Of course, due to the circular structure of the novel we already know what will happen, that she will sleep with Joe, as the introductory pages make clear, but exactly what Kitty’s function in the plot is, and what problems she brings with her, unfold gradually but with devastating certainty.
The novel is tightly structured, set over a week with the book divided up into days, and concluding with a short section in the voice of Nina. It is one of those books where not a word is wasted; it may take a while for repeated motifs, Freudian slips and giveaway words to dawn on you, but when they do the novel begins to take on a whole new shape. The central figure seems to be that of Kitty, beautiful, depressed, and apparently doomed. She has written a poem called ‘Swimming Home’ (which, cunningly, the reader does not get more than a glimpse of) which she shows to Joe. The significance of water, the swimming pool the holidaymakers use, rain, and the ‘swimming home’ of the poem all knit together to form a concept which combines both water (danger, fear, possible death, in contrast to the usual holiday connotations of water) and ‘home’, with its implications of safety, cosiness and happiness. What ‘home’ might mean for different people, and what constitutes happiness and freedom makes up a considerable part of this novel, although the focus is on the reverse: why the characters are not free, what binds them, makes them live in misery and fear. It is a novel which ruthlessly examines the effects of depression – including how they might go unnoticed – and dissects what damage people can unwittingly do to one another.
The narrative, whilst remaining in third-person throughout, often takes on the ideas and phraseology of different characters, which has the effect of making most of the characters seem sympathetic: these are a group of surprisingly three-dimensional characters, whose actions, good or bad, are usually understandable. This subtle change of tone and use of voices perhaps owes something to Levy’s work as a playwright: there is certainly something of the stage set about the holiday home, and the feeling of an opening scene when Kitty first confronts the family on holiday. As Kitty appears to disintegrate mentally, and Nina develops emotionally and physically, it is surprising how visual the novel is: it is easy to ‘see’ these characters unfold and develop. Yet it is not easy to understand them, or their motivations (as indeed the characters clearly fail to understand themselves or each other) and this sense of both remarkable clarity combined with the sense that we can’t know everything, is disconcerting and unsettling.
The book opens with an epigraph from La revolution surrealiste in 1924, which says that ‘We are all at the mercy of the dream and we owe it to ourselves to submit it power to the waking state’. This book is full of dreams, many of which are destined to be thwarted. Yet Nina, who carries the future inside her, seems to offer some hope that, perhaps, the bad dreams may be overcome and the good dreams achieved. This is not to imply, however, that this novel has anything as simple as closure, or a happy ending; quite the reverse. It is a novel which raises ideas, thoughts, issues, and does not solve anything, because, it turns out, there are things which simply cannot be solved, and what seems straightforward is actually profound.